George Santayana was a philosopher, poet, critic, and best-selling novelist. He was born Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana in Madrid, Spain, on 16 December 1863. In 1872 his mother brought him to the United States, where he attended Boston Latin School and then Harvard University. At Harvard, he read and wrote poetry, studied philosophy with William James and Josiah Royce, and graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in philosophy in 1886. He was then awarded a traveling fellowship and studied in Germany with Hermann Lotze on whom he wrote a doctoral dissertation at Harvard under the direction of Royce. In June 1889 he received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard. That summer he contemplated entering the Massachusetts Instituted of Technology to study architecture, but instead he accepted the offer of an instructorship teaching philosophy at Harvard in the fall.
Santayana taught at Harvard for twenty years, becoming a professor and gaining the admiration of students for his well-crafted lectures. In 1912 he retired from Harvard and moved to Europe, never to return to the United States. For the next forty years he wrote prolifically and traveled constantly, except when prevented by war or age. After his departure from America, Santayana moved back and forth twenty-one times between Britain and the continent, until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 kept him in England.
In 1919 he was traveling again and had established an annual circuit that took him to France, Italy and Spain. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Santayana was trapped in Rome. Without access to his money in the United States, he took a room in the Clinica dell Piccola Compagna di Maria (Clinic of the Little Company of Mary) run by an order known popularly as the Blue Nuns. He would live here until his death on 26 September 1952.
During his life Santayana attained a degree of popularity largely unknown to present-day academic philosophers, appearing on the cover of Time magazine on 3 February 1936. While his exquisite literary style certainly contributed to his popular success, it also may have led to neglect of the study of his deeper philosophical insights including his historical analysis, theory of knowledge, metaphysical speculations, and the moral philosophy that underlay the cultural critique found in his best-selling novel, The Last Puritan, first published in 1935 in England and in 1936 in the United States.
Santayana had facility in many languages, was well-read in literature, and extremely knowledgeable about the history of philosophy. He often acknowledged his philosophical debt to Aristotle, Lucretius, and Spinoza; and the influence of William James and contemporary science and psychology are also apparent in Santayana’s thought.
In spite of his awareness of both traditional and contemporary philosophy, Santayana’s own writing does not parade this learning but instead, as John Lachs points out, it expresses his “own vision in his own language.” Santayana had observed of philosophy in America that it tended not “to bridge the chasm between what [one] believes in daily life and the ‘problems’ of philosophy.” By contrast Santayana believed that philosophy aims, first, at a systematic account of “the shrewd orthodoxy which the sentiment and practice of laymen maintain everywhere” and, second, at evoking “a distinct vision of the universe and definite convictions about human destiny” that “inspires and expresses the life of those who cherish it.” So, for Santayana, philosophy has a moral function and contributes to living a good life.
The argument for Santayana’s relevance for contemporary culture is strong. His profound sensitivity to aesthetic, religious, moral, and scientific aspects of culture, along with his two-fold status as Boston-raised Harvard professor and Spanish-born Catholic, gave him a critical insight into American culture. His simultaneous cultural status as insider and outsider allowed him to survive submersion in American cultural conditions he found suffocating largely because he also maintained a lifeline to an alternative tradition, that is, his Spanish and Catholic heritage. Santayana summed up the pernicious aspect of American culture in the phrase “the genteel tradition,” which he understood as a system of ideas that includes a largely unacknowledged Calvinism combined with a dogmatic import from German idealism. Santayana contended that this induces a kind of cultural delusion that keeps America from understanding what it is about, what its real strengths and weaknesses are, and leaves the culture conflicted and confused.
Santayana’s critique speaks to ongoing cultural conflicts between religious beliefs and scientific practices, and moral principles and business practices. In making his critique, and indeed in articulating his philosophical system, Santayana offered a view of the same world that so dismayed Henry Adams; but Santayana’s response to that world, if it is not more hopeful, is certainly more rational than the one given by Adams. Ultimately, the value of Santayana’s thought may lie in its stubborn dissimilarity from deeply-ingrained American sensibilities. Robert Dawidoff writes, “The staying power of Santayana’s analysis results from its irreducible challenge to any American cultural tradition that would co-opt it.” Santayana’s affectionate criticism of American philosophy and culture challenges the tradition to accept what it cannot accept which is to say it challenges it to grow and become more aware of itself.